The stunt person turned director of ‘Atomic Blonde’ and ‘Deadpool 2’ shares advice for making action movies.
While many filmmakers would never think that working as a stunt person would lead to directing, David Leitch seems to have had the right idea on how to prepare himself for helming action films. Having spent years working as a stunt double for such stars as Brad Pitt as a stunt coordinator on films including Jupiter Ascending, and as a second-unit director on Jurassic World and Captain America: Civil War, Leitch is well aware of the ins and outs of working on big budget films. And if there’s anything his co-directorial debut on John Wick and his solo debut with Atomic Blonde proved, it’s that the guy knows how to make an engaging action sequence.
Now having worked his way up the ladder and achieved success in the industry, he’s begun to impart wisdom to those hoping to direct the next big action film. Below we gathered some of his best advice from over the years.
Work in the Stunt World
As noted above, long before he was directing blockbusters like Deadpool 2, Leitch spent years as a stunt person and stunt coordinator, an experience he has carried with him into his directing career. He told the New York Times in 2017:
“I think the biggest thing you take from the stunt world is your understanding of the filmmaking process. For years you’ve worked with every other department closely. You know hair, makeup, wardrobe, special effects, and you know what everybody’s needs are and their expectations. You also know how to collaborate with them. So having 20 plus years as a performer or a stunt coordinator, it’s just a lot of knowledge of like everybody’s job. I think that helps as a director.”
In an interview with Men’s Journal in 2017, he expressed a similar sentiment:
“As a stunt guy, you become a mini-director. You’re talking to actors about performance. The way you present a stunt is tied in to the way you photograph it, so you’re hanging out with the cinematographer. You learn tricks to make action look more dynamic – having the fight come toward you or shooting on a longer lens to compress the speed.”
Action Should Serve Character
Action films oftentimes get a bad rap for focusing too much on spectacle rather than emotion and character development. Leitch however, advises using action as a way to convey a character arc to the audience.
“You always start a fight scene or an action scene with what are we learning about this character at the moment and how are we gonna arc him or her in the next three minutes, and it’s no different with ‘Deadpool’ or ‘Atomic Blonde’ or ‘John Wick.’ There’s an arc to an action sequence, and you need to come out the other end knowing your character better and maybe the story has moved forward in a compelling way. I think—and the audience may not realize it— how much you learn about a character during an action sequence and how much it defines the character. So as long as you’re approaching that with the choreography you’re servicing the bigger movie, then you’re doing your job.”
He tells ScreenJunkies the same thing in this interview from Comic Con in 2017:
Even as someone who’s been in the business for over two decades now, with every new project Leitch still tries to find fresh and interesting ways to bring a scene to life. In an interview with Coming Soon in 2017, he talked about the importance of filmmakers following this strategy:
“I think what’s really important is to challenge yourself. You can very easily fall into the rut of, ‘We know it works! We’ll use that old chestnut.’ Just like any department, you can always fall back on your tricks. But there are still a lot of ideas that go into every action scene.”
He also told Empire in 2017 (in addition to urging people to use John Goodman as much as possible) that action filmmakers should challenge themselves to go above and beyond what’s written on the page to make sure you’re delivering something fresh to the audience:
“When I originally got the script I immediately started to envision more action [than was in there]. You want things to be different and you want your protagonist to have as many problems as possible to solve in a sequence. So it’s, ‘OK, she’s in a car but the guy has a gun and also there’s somebody following them. Then the choreography can take on new dimensions, rather than just being face-to-face, mano-a-mano. That really lets you be creative.”
Make Bold Choices
Part of being a good director means having the ability to listen to your collaborators while also staying true to your vision as a filmmaker. In an interview with ScreenRant from 2017, Leitch discusses the importance of balancing this and trusting your instincts:
“I think what I learned from ‘John Wick’ [is] it really pays to stick to your guns and to make these bold choices that speak to the marketplace. I mean, no one wanted us to kill a dog. It was a real fight. And no one wanted Keanu to have a beard and no one wanted him to have a suit. And like everyone was trying to take out this world building and then also want it to be the emotional heart of the story. You are constantly impeded by this advice that is against your instinct and it is okay to entertain those ideas as a director. I think that is important that you hear all the ideas and you be the filter. God forbid you wouldn’t want to hear a good idea. I think it’s also important to stick to your guns and when you have a bold and provocative vision, there is a reason for you to go for it, because it’s hard for you to break through the noise in the actual space. There are a lot of programmers and they feel the same. It’s okay to make bold, original choices. If they are out of convention, it is probably a good idea.”
He told the XFinity movie blog a similar lesson with more address of how it carried over from second-unit directing, and he also told Hypable a condensed version of this tip as he segued to the next piece of advice:
“Stick to your guns, make bold choices, and really follow your vision because at the end of the day the movie needs to have a point of view and it needs to come from you and you have to be passionate about it. It’s such a labor of love and it’s all so consuming…”
Love the Material
Making a film is a long and intensive process. Because of this, as the Hypable quote continues in stating, you’ve got to love what you’re working on:
“… ‘Atomic Blonde’ is essentially two years of my life and my wife’s life — she brought me the material, Kelly McCormick, who’s a producer on it. We spent two years. And before that, Charlize spent years developing it with her company. You just have to believe in it, your vision, and stick to your vision. And as a filmmaker, that’s your obligation to the movie.”
Leitch also similarly told FilmIsNow in 2017:
“I think when you get a property and you read it and you respond to it, and pictures start to come to life and music starts to come to life, that’s when you know you want to spend two years of your life directing it and editing it and getting it out to the world. Art, it’s such an all-consuming process, so you’ve really got to love the material…”
See the complete interview below:
Think Beyond Just Action Directing
At the end of the day, filmmaking is filmmaking. Whether you’re directing a rom-com or an action film, there’s still the matter of budgets, characters, story, and maintaining a set. In an interview with Dork Shelf in 2014, Leitch advised taking all of this into consideration when making a movie:
“I mean, you definitely think in terms of strengths and weaknesses, for sure, but here you also have to look out for conditions and limitations, not just ours but finances, logistics, and what your cast and crew can take. We have a lot of experience in doing that from doing second unit stuff because you’re always expected to do twice as much with half the money and resources. But with ourselves, it’s more that you have to think differently. It’s not about getting it good, it’s about getting it great. It’s not about what the cool action sequence is, but does it fit the story or move the characters? If you can think in those terms of big directing versus action directing, that’s probably the biggest step you have to make.”
What We Learned
One of the best ways to hone your skills as a filmmaker is to just get on set and try your hand at a variety of jobs. Whether you’re a PA or a stunt coordinator, having hands-on experience in areas other than directing is to your benefit. With each experience, you’ll grow as a filmmaker and start to discover your style as well as what works and what doesn’t when making a movie. You’ll learn from your mistakes and take note of all your triumphs. In doing this, much like Leitch, you’ll become a seasoned filmmaker before you even step into the director’s chair.